‘We are fighting evil’: Making the South-West Asia Service Medal

Article / April 19, 2017 / Project number: 16-0044

By Steven Fouchard, Army Public Affairs

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This is the third and final in a series of stories describing the work of the Directorate of Honours and Recognition (DH&R), which administers the various processes related to the awarding of medals and other honours to the Canadian Armed Forces members. In this final installment, DH&R Director Lieutenant-Colonel Carl Gauthier discusses the collaborative process of creating the South-West Asia Service Medal (SWASM), which honoured service in the Afghanistan campaign.

Ottawa, Ontario — Creating the South-West Asia Service Medal, representing the Afghanistan mission and the threat of international terrorism, presented a unique challenge. It was created to honour Canada’s soldiers who served in Afghanistan and is not only a salute to that service, but is also a symbolic representation of the hope for peace.

‘A multifarious evil’: The design process begins

“When I arrived at DH&R in 2002, we had just started the Afghan campaign. Very little had yet been discussed as to what recognition should be available. And so very quickly I had to come up with some ideas as to what we would want,” noted Lieutenant-Colonel Carl Gauthier, Director, Honours and Recognition.

“I provided a design and that went forward. The way I represented it was re-drawn quite significantly, entirely really, by Cathy Bursey-Sabourin, Principal Artist of the Canadian Heraldic Authority. She makes them look a lot prettier than I imagined. In fact, she didn’t even see my drawings; she saw my written description. And from there she drew what we know as the South-West Asia Service Medal (SWASM).”

“The Canadian system inherited a lot of traditions from the British. The tradition has been to put the sovereign on the front. On the reverse is something representing the service the honour is meant to recognize. So when it came to the SWASM, it was very difficult because how do you represent international terrorism? It’s a very diffuse sort of threat that can be anywhere in the world and takes many forms. The Hydra is a Greek mythological figure that is considered a multifarious evil. It has many heads, many faces that cannot be defeated in one single effort. So you have this, I thought, perfect representation of what international terrorism is; that it takes many faces, it comes in many different places. You’re not going to be able to kill it with a single blow. It requires a sustained effort.”

“When Cathy drew it she depicted a more dragon-like creature. And she made each head different. And there is a sword at an angle. In heraldry when the sword is at an angle it means the creature into which the sword is thrust is dying; it’s being defeated. We added the Latin inscription, ‘Adversus malum pugnamus,’ meaning ‘We are fighting evil.’”

‘Peace was the central element’: The ribbon

“The colours of the ribbon were interesting because peace, represented by the colour white, was the central element; sort of the light at the end of the tunnel because you have the black, the shock of September 11, the red for the blood that has been spilled, and the edges are sand-coloured, representing the challenge of the theatre of operations. In my original design they were green. Green has been used in many of our ribbons to represent service but somebody said, ‘Isn’t green the colour of Islam?’ We certainly did not want to frame the campaign as one religion against another.”

Traditions and technicalities

“You draw several inches in diameter on a big sheet of paper. You have to think, ‘Okay, this has to be made 36 millimetres in diameter in metal in one colour, so what is that going to look like at that size?’ It still has to look like something. So these are things you have to keep in mind. And how is it technically going to be made? If you design a very intricate suspension, how are they going to make the thing? Is it going to be solid enough? When you pass the ribbon through it first, and then the thread and you put a bit of pressure on it, is it going to snap? There’s tradition in it, there’s symbolism of course, but there’s also these basic, technical things.”

“The process can be 18 months or more. The SWASM was very quick. It was pushed through, I think, in eight months. But of course it was Afghanistan; there was a lot of pressure from all levels of government to get this moving. As of June 1 2015, 12,736 SWASMs had been issued”

‘They’re really warriors’: The recipients

“Like our veterans from Korea and the First and Second World Wars, they have gone through horrible things. You know, they’re really warriors. You see them in those fancy chairs at Rideau Hall when the Governor General presents the higher decorations for valour and merit. Their names are called and they are stressed out. They’ve been through hell and yet they are absolutely horrified because this is not their element.”

“There’s one story that sums it all up: The Queen Mother did an investiture on behalf of the Queen at Buckingham Palace; presenting some very high bravery honour. She said to the recipient, ‘It must have been really scary,’ and his answer was, ‘Not half as scary as this, ma’am.’”

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